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Meghan Drury

Meghan Drury received her Ph.D. in American Studies at George Washington University and teaches at Portland State University. She is working on a manuscript tentatively titled “Sonic Arabness: The Middle East in the American Popular Music Imaginary, 1950-2010.” She is managing editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

"'Doing the Kutchy, Kutchy': Tin Pan Alley, Belly Dance Music, and the Limits of White Femininity"
The story of the introduction of belly dance to the U.S. at the 1893 World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition in Chicago has become a familiar one, but the accompanying music has not been widely examined. This paper explores the gendered dimensions of Orientalist Tin Pan Alley music, arguing that the sounds themselves became intertwined with exoticized concepts of Arab and North African femininity (alongside an invisible specter of brutal masculinity), which made them both intriguing and incendiary. Critical and legal responses to early belly dance in the U.S. suggest it was widely judged to be indecent, with critics positioning it far outside the bounds of normative white femininity. The 1921 Rudolph Valentino film The Sheik based on the 1919 novel by Edith Maude Hull, known for its portrayal of a plucky British woman played by Agnes Ayres who is kidnapped by a sheikh while traveling alone in North Africa, inspired a wave of musical responses. One of the most famous examples is “The Sheik of Araby,” a Tin Pan Alley hit that subsequently became a jazz standard. It has been covered by a wide range of artists including Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt, and The Beatles. Writers have speculated that the song became so popular among southern jazz artists because of a local connection to the Louisiana town of Arabi, a suburb of New Orleans known for legal gambling. While likely true, I contend that the song was also appealing because of risqúe associations: imagined tensions between exoticized Arab femininity and respectable white femininity, and implied sexual violence. Not only did songs like “The Sheik of Araby” help lengthen the cultural memory of the famous Valentino film, they also helped re-inscribe the boundaries of proper conduct for white women in the 1920s and beyond.